I had an interesting time talking with CBS sports bracketologist Jerry Palm for my notebook on bracketology that ran in the Star Tribune this morning, so I thought I’d share some of the other things we chatted about – like how he got into bracketology for example (in an era where that sort of interest didn’t have a name).
If you asked Palm to describe himself, he’d probably tell you he’s “a numbers guy.” Numbers are what he went to school for, when he majored in computer science at Purdue, and numbers were what got him a job -- as a computer programmer at a Chicago law firm, which is where he was worked in the early 1990s, perfectly pleased with his career path. That’s when he started tinkering out with his new hobby. It’s no surprise that involved numbers, too.
Palm, a lifelong sports fan, had come across an article in the Sporting News that described the most recent change to the RPI formula. That was all it took to make him curious enough to dedicate hours of time to see if he could create an ongoing list.
“I started doing the numbers for my own education,” he said. “I thought, ‘Oh, well, I’ve got a computer, we’ve got this Internet now, maybe I can get this information, collect these numbers and I’ll just run the numbers for myself,’ just because I was curious as to what the numbers look like because, like I said, I’m a numbers guy.”
For him the intrigue grew. At the time, no one was really publishing that information. But in those days spreading info rogue style was tough.
“Then, the Internet was barely in existence. I was publishing numbers on news groups. There weren’t chat rooms; there weren’t forums; there weren’t really bulletin boards. It was like the cave man, chalk-on-the-wall version of those things. It was like a year later I created a little AOL website for it and then it got its own domain a couple years after that.
“I didn’t start doing bracket projections until about four years in – probably 1998. Back then, it was just me and Joe Lunardi; there wasn’t anybody else."
He spread the information around a little, just in case there was other interest out there -- interest he figured would form a crowd large enough to “comfortably fit in a minivan,” but he was soon surprised with a heavier trickle of a response than he imagined.
Then, a reporter covering Penn State – Dave Jones – caught on and put a big voice behind it. And things exploded.
“He contacted me … and then he called me again. And he tells two friends and they tell two friends, a shampoo commercial breaks out and without two years everybody covering college basketball knew who I was and was asking me about this stuff.
“And I could not have stopped it – I mean other than turning off my phone and getting into the fetal position under my desk, there wasn’t any way for me to stop this. It was just kind of thrust upon me and it’s I guess blossomed ever since. It’s not like I was out there marketing myself. Some guy found me.
“I didn’t grow up wanting to be the RPI guy. Although if I had known back then, maybe I would have.”
In 2002, when Palm was downsized from the bank he was working at, he decided to try to make a living out of it – the rest, as they say, is history.
Four facts about Palm’s bracket:
1. It never predicts. “I always base my bracket on if the season ended today because it’s hard enough to do a bracket based on that without trying to predict what will happen in future games too -- if I could do that I’d be running a different kind of site,” he said.
2. It takes about eight hours to construct originally, and about 2-4 hours to update. To start, Palm ranks the teams 1-68, starting with the at-large field. He has built his own private tools to compare teams and he literally goes through team-by-team data and schedule comparisons, two-by-two, for hours. Right now, he’s updating about twice a week; starting next week he’ll update once a day.
3. He mimics the committee as much as possible. To do that, he studies all the things they have rewarded in the past. “It’s also a subjective process,” he said. “They go out and watch these teams play and some of it is just like ‘Do they look like an NCAA team’ at some point. So I try to watch as many games as I can.”
4. It’s usually pretty close to the real deal. “Typically I miss one at-large team,” he said. “Last year I missed two. Last year was the first year they went to 68 so they had 37 instead of 34 at-larges. And I think the bigger the at-large pool the more difficult it is because at the bottom of the bracket you have more teams that look the same.”